Loving God’s Wildness

Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature (University of Alabama Press, 2015)

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When the Puritans arrived in the New World to carry out the colonization they saw as divinely mandated, they were confronted by the American wilderness. Part of their theology led them to view the natural environment as “a temple of God” in which they should glorify and serve its creator. The larger prevailing theological view, however, saw this vast continent as “the Devil’s Territories” needing to be conquered and cultivated for God’s Kingdom. These contradictory designations gave rise to an ambivalence regarding the character of this land and humanity’s proper relation to it.

Loving God’s Wildness rediscovers the environmental roots of America’s Puritan heritage. In tracing this history, Jeffrey Bilbro demonstrates how the dualistic Christianity that the Puritans brought to America led them to see the land as an empty wilderness that God would turn into a productive source of marketable commodities. Bilbro carefully explores the effect of this dichotomy in the nature writings of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Willa Cather, and Wendell Berry.

Thoreau, Muir, Cather, and Berry imaginatively developed the Puritan theological tradition to propose practical, physical means by which humans should live and worship within the natural temple of God’s creation. They reshaped Puritan dualism, each according to the particular needs of his or her own ecological and cultural contexts, into a theology that demands care for the entire created community. While differing in their approaches and respective ecological ethics, the four authors Bilbro examines all share the conviction that God remains active in creation and that humans ought to relinquish their selfish ends to participate in his wild ecology.

Loving God’s Wildness fills a critical gap in literary criticism and environmental studies by offering a sustained, detailed argument regarding how Christian theology has had a profound and enduring legacy in shaping the contours of the American ecological imagination. Literary critics, scholars of religion and environmental studies, and thoughtful Christians who are concerned about environmental issues will profit from this engaging new book.

Endorsements and Reviews

“In this fresh and invigorating study, Jeffrey Bilbro skillfully weaves his way through four centuries of American history. Loving God’s Wildness takes us on a journey from William Bradford in the seventeenth century to Wendell Berry in the twenty-first as it maps the complex and often vexing interplay between Christianity and the environment in the life and literature of the New World. With impressive clarity and conviction, Bilbro argues that many of America’s greatest writers have turned to Christian theology for the resources they need ‘to practice their love for the wild world.’ This is indeed a book worth reading, an argument worth engaging.” Roger Lundin, author of From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority and editor of Invisible Conversations: Religion in the Literature of America.

“With its revealing, ably researched focus on the subsurface ‘Christian roots’ of American nature writing, Jeffrey Bilbro’s analysis of four noteworthy writers is a welcome contribution to the growing body of ecocritical literary commentary. Admirers of Wendell Berry will find Bilbro’s account of that author’s ecological vision in later writings, including the novel Jayber Crow, particularly illuminating.” John Gatta, author of Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present.

“Running deep in the American religious psyche, according to Jeffrey Bilbro, is a kind of environmental schizophrenia, a profound ambivalence that has led us to protect and celebrate wilderness areas while simultaneously fueling the ambition to ‘redeem’ untamed nature by transforming it into a material sign of God’s favor. Despite Lynn White’s claim that only a religious solution to an essentially religious problem like American environmental degradation will serve us, religious ideas in contemporary environmental thought remain largely untreated or ignored by scholars. By demonstrating how some of our most important and innovative Christian environmental thinkers—Thoreau, Muir, Cather, and Berry—have navigated this ambivalence and managed to recover a Christian ethic of holistic and ecologically grounded protection of the environment, Bilbro’s Loving God’s Wildness provides American religious thought with an indispensable roadmap toward a more sane and clear-headed embrace of environmental stewardship.” George Handley, author of Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River.

Michial Farmer interviewed me about this book on the Christian Humanist Profiles series.

Mark Edwards interviewed me about this book on Religion in American History.

Front Porch Republic published an essay on the Puritans and Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ that is adapted from the introduction of this book.

“Refreshingly lucid and widely learned,” according to a review in Christianity and Literature.

This book “is a helpful reminder for those interested in the environmental humanities that not only is the natural world mediated through writers, but that these writers are, in turn, mediated through their critics,” from ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.

Also reviewed in First ThingsAmerican Literature, Choice, Themelios, and Western American Literature.